Summer sabbatical – thoughts on life and practice

Ross and Sita at Cape LookoutThe page has turned once more and, as I enter the fall season, my thoughts center around my summer sabbatical. I took three months away from teaching, away from my yoga community, and entered a quiet life alongside an estuary in a small town on the coast of Oregon. It is beautiful here, with herons, pelicans, sandpipers, hawks and bald eagles circling through the air space. The rhythm of the tides leave fresh discoveries every morning along the half mile beach front where we walk. Sita, our very fluffy American Eskimo, scampers after the birds and digs for clams. She is free, I feel free, and my husband comes to life in his floppy white hat, shorts, and sandals. It is cooler here then in Santa Monica, and I generally don my scarf and down jacket.

What is practice? How would I invest my time here? What would I discover? What was I willing to let go of? Who am I without the trappings of “teacher”? Or is “teacher” an integral part of my own process of exploration?

My husband’s father moved here thirty years ago. Over a decade he and Ross, my husband purchased a few properties. When my father-in-law passed away, we found ourselves managing rentals from a thousand miles away. Ross is well known to many locals so we already had a footprint and a reputation for driving a car with California plates that say “Yoga007”. We were both insiders, from Ross’ years of political engagement supporting the local mayor, and outsiders as “those Californians” part-time locals. Yet this year we were invited to block parties and played trivia weekly at the local brew bar. Small town living big time. It was fun!

Now, re-entry. I turn sixty-five in three months. This is a good time for reflection. Practice, reflection. How was my asana practice this year?

I practiced daily. I began with Savasana, a real active savasana. First stage is to let go the pull of gravity and let my body relax. Next, I find that my mind goes on a commercial break and drifts around various inconsequential events. Coming back, I invite my attention to return the touch point of my body on the earth, to the softness of my back body, the skin, flesh, and rhythm of the breath. I would then feel my mind shift into a wider, quieter state. Slightly deeper breaths, and from these breaths I would begin to awaken the animal body. When I watch my puppy stretch, downward doggie, every fiber enjoys the elongation from her tongue to her tail! I let myself enjoy and slow down.

Sita watching for sealsOver the months I explored all variations of incorporating the breath into my practice. Sometimes it was through staying in a pose and feeling how my back lungs might widen at end of the inhalation and how the flesh beneath the skin could move freely at the end of exhalation. Or how the breath could initiate movement and guide the transitions between poses. How the natural shape of the inhalation and exhalation effects my body and each pose. Forward bends, props, long timings, back arches, slow and fast, with and without support. How luxurious to explore!

In Santa Monica, where I teach, I find that I coordinate most of my practice around what I might teach. It is a process of discovery to figure out an effective way to introduce an concept, or to help student approach a complex pose, or to address individual needs in class. Practice coerces me beyond my own natural proclivities and into service for others. I love this. And, I love my sabbatical.

Feeling my muscles, drive, and ego slowly dissolve into the floor was a welcome way to invite a deep receptivity that opened up a beginner’s mind. No expectations, no plans. As my nervous system relaxed, my breath moved into the foreground. Watching the end of exhalation, the quiet suspended moment before the next beginning, the next cycle. Funny how I lose time when I practice, I really forget when I start my practice so I don’t know how long I am on the mat.

I would often vary my practice. One day, with breath centered movements through asanas and salutations. I have sequences or vinyasas for all categories of poses. Other days, I would stay in each pose, eyes closed, feeling how the breath could shape the pose, skin moving away from flesh, where the shape was hollow, round, long. Standing poses are always home base. If I was fatigued or sore somewhere then that first Utthita Trikoṇāsana was like a corporal sigh; the legs, back and shoulders all radiating relief. As I get older, I value the backbending practice for how it strengthens my will and animates everything. Ross picking organic blueberries near TillamookBut I also find that when I begin with supports – blocks, ropes, stools – to release the grip in the back, groin and shoulder muscles and cultivate a quiet relationship with the exquisite sense of expansion, the back arches themselves come more easily.

Now, how will the re-entry be? Teaching, practicing, community, friends. On sabbatical, my practice, husband, dog and cooking are priorities. The rest of the year, the classes I teach, my practice, husband, dog and friends are priorities. But perhaps this order will change as I approach this threshold which includes Social Security. Perhaps practice, husband, dog and friends will surface, while teaching becomes less central. I rest in the not-knowing and let all things evolve.

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